Swish new properties such as Coworth Park and Lime Wood have redefined the look and feel of the classic English country-house retreat, says Claire Wrathall
WHEN THE DORCHESTER Collection’s newest hotel, Coworth Park, opened near Ascot, Berkshire, very close to Wentworth Golf Club (and not far from Sunningdale), last autumn, it was supported by an advertising campaign bearing the legend: ‘The country house that rewrites the rules.’ The typeface was redolent of graffiti; the principal colour easyJet orange.
As a way to market a hotel where the opening rack rate for a night’s B&B in an executive suite was £770, it seemed perverse, especially for a stablemate of The Dorchester and Paris’s Plaza Athénée, hotels revered for their elegance, tradition and, well, conformity. Built in the late-18th century in the neoclassical style, Coworth may once have been a convent run by the Sisters of the Resurrection — and, who knows, a hotbed of schoolgirl rebelliousness — but in its new incarnation, neither its exemplary staff nor its well-heeled guests seem the type to be wanting to flout convention.
Even the shade of orange in the palette chosen by its designer, Martin Hulbert of Fox Linton Associates — the colour of the ties worn by male staff, much of the stationery, and the leather on the banisters of the outstanding modern oak staircase that spirals up from the reception — turns out to be reminiscent more of Hermès packaging than low-cost aviation.
Beautifully designed and intelligently laid out, the 70 rooms at Coworth — 30 in the main house, a further 40 in a picturesque development of family-friendly stables and other outbuildings (my favourites were the stand-alone Bothy and Loft), set around a trio of lakes in the 240-acre grounds — are essentially traditional. Floors are limed oak with contemporary wool rugs in pale colours; beds are (mostly) four-poster with curtains that close; the chairs faux-Louis XVI fauteuils.
But beyond the consoles at the foot of the beds from which the flat-screen TVs rise, there’s nothing very leading edge. Even the bathrooms are resolutely old-fashioned with their copper roll-top baths (a copy of The Book of Idle Pleasures is propped up on the chrome bath rack) and period chrome taps.
Not that the rooms lack mod cons: there are US (as well as UK) electrical sockets set into the dressing table; an espresso maker in the wardrobe; and they allow you a single gigabyte of WiFi for free (otherwise it’s £16 a day). Indeed, my only real complaints were that the bright blue bedside nightlights could not be extinguished, and they charge £4 for 33cl of water from the minibar, and supplied only one small complimentary bottle (there were two of us) at turndown.
But if the rooms are lovely, they aren’t Coworth’s only appeal. The grounds — a formal upper parterre, sunken and rose gardens, a lime grove and vistas across polo grounds towards woodland — are splendid. There’s a fine spa and 18m pool, with daylit treatment rooms, all partially set into the hillside and concealed by a sedum roof. (Never pious or in-your-face about it, Coworth does what it can to minimise its environmental impact.)
There’s also stabling for 40 horses, so you can bring your own if you’d rather not ride theirs, as well as a horse exercise track and dressage ring. (An equestrian theme runs through the décor, from the witty embroidered horseshoes and stirrups that border the bedlinen to a frieze of horses’ heads in one of the bars, by way of an informal restaurant, The Barn, that’s tricked out like a tack room.)
Its real glory, however, is the restaurant, John Campbell at Coworth Park, which surely has Michelin stars in its grasp. Campbell, formerly of The Vineyard at Stock Cross, offers two eight-course tasting menus (at £80) or an à la carte option (£48 for two courses; £60 for three); along with all sorts for friandises and palate cleansers, including a sorbet of egg white, apple juice and sherry vinegar ‘cooked’ at the table in a bath of liquid nitrogen. It was irresistibly theatrical and tasted like very cold, sweet cider.
But it wasn’t typical of the cooking, which is outstandingly good, inventive but without outlandish combinations of ingredients — ‘crab, clam, salsify and artichoke’, ‘halibut, oyster, chorizo and seaweed,’ ‘sweetbreads, shallot, hazelnut and lemon’ — deftly prepared so that their intense flavours speak for themselves. The staff were charming — even when tested by a diner at the next table, who asked if the English artisanal cheeses on the exemplary board included anything ‘dairy-free’.
Rather than rewrite the rules in the way, for instance, supermarket heiress Jessica Sainsbury and Oxford professor Peter Frankopan sought to do when they opened Cowley Manor in Oxfordshire in 2002, furnishing their florid Italianate mansion with Achille Castiglioni Arco floor lamps and bespoke furniture by Kay + Stemmer, and dressing the staff in cords and T-shirts, I’d say Coworth is seeking to refine them.
NOT THAT THE Dorchester Collection is the only global brand to be offering country-house weekends within 100 miles or so of London to those without rural seats of their own or friends with stately homes. Four Seasons’ reinvention of Dogmersfield Park, unoriginally named Four Seasons Hampshire, a handsome redbrick Georgian stately home-turned boarding school, surrounded by 500 acres of parkland, through which wends the Basingstoke canal, is almost five years old now.
Like all Four Seasons the world over (there are now 86 in total), it is expertly run by unfailingly cheerful, keen-to-please staff. The beds are blissfully comfortable Sealy Posturelux 4000s. The baths fill in a matter of seconds. The rooms are an attractive, if rather unexceptional, essay in chintzy English tradition.
But for all that, there is something just a little slick, soulless and, well, North American about it. (When I was there, the herbal tea they served in the spa came in a mug bearing a Starbucks logo.) The majority of the 133 rooms are not in the original house, but rather drab modern annexes linked by glazed walkways. The restaurants — Seasons (notionally French) and The Bistro (classy burgers, fish and chips) —could be anywhere.
And though it’s child-friendly inasmuch as there are miniature bathrobes and milk and cookies on offer, under-sixteens are banned from the 20m swimming pool from 11am to 3pm (and from the vitality pool at all times) and under-eights aren’t welcome in the main restaurant after 7.30pm. Nul points, too, for the £15 a day WiFi charge.
It has, however, found a loyal following among exhausted Londoners longing for respite in the country, a market Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria brand is hoping to tap into with just-opened Syon Park, a 137-room property on the edge of the Duke of Northumberland’s 200-acre Capability Brown-landscaped park, seven miles from central London, near Twickenham.
Unlike Syon House itself, which was designed by Robert Adam, Syon Park is a new-build — an architecturally unlovely complex of low-rise, pitch-roofed buildings by the London practice Ettwein Bridges that it styles an ‘adult playground’. It will, however, almost certainly be the only hotel in the UK to be able to boast of a butterfly house in its lobby and a cosmetic surgeon in attendance at its spa.
IT MAY NOT offer surgical procedures, but the recently opened spa (with 16m indoor pool) is a renewed reason to visit Lime Wood, also in Hampshire, the Regency mansion turned 29-key hotel belonging to chemicals magnate Jim Ratcliffe that opened in the heart of the New Forest National Park at the end of 2009.
A year on, it is better than ever, a model of everything an unstuffy country-house hotel should be, where one senses they really have tried to think of every detail. Venture into the bathroom at night, and a motion sensor trips low-level lighting to illuminate the room at a level that won’t disturb your partner or leave you fumbling for the light. Fancy a walk and forgotten your Wellington boots? There’s a boot room full of Hunters in every size and shade for guests to borrow, for this is a place that encourages exploration of the forest to the extent that in every room there’s a clear PVC walker’s map-holder containing maps and instructions for eight walks (from two to thirteen miles) from the hotel.
I loved almost everything about Lime Wood. The rooms, each individually designed by David Collins, are airy, uncluttered and furnished in a complementary mix of antique and modern pieces, with pale oak floors and pretty unfussy textiles in muted colours. The staff are friendly and confident, efficient and correct. WiFi, abundant mineral water and phone calls costing less than £2 aren’t charged for. And the menu in the main restaurant (£40 for two courses, £50 for three) is short but alluring and makes play of local produce, especially wild mushrooms (Lime Wood has its own forager), rare English cheeses and salmon smoked on site.
If you’d rather dine informally, there is also The Scullery, handsomely designed to evoke the kitchen of a Regency stately home, a roaring fire at one end, a great communal table at its centre (there are lots of smaller ones for the less sociable), its walls lined with plate racks, and an unpretentious menu that runs from reasonably priced roasts, salads and sandwiches to Heinz baked beans on toast (£6). Only the fact that Chris Evans’ Radio 2 show was the soundtrack to breakfast seemed a homely detail too far.
In the interests of objectivity it’s possibly worth pointing out that Lime Wood can be a challenge to find after dark because the sign is both small and unlit (two strictures imposed by its national-park setting, I was told). And if I were to nit-pick, I’d say the layout of the bathroom in my suite (Coach House 1) could be improved on, and that the bedroom could do with a chair. But these are observations rather than criticisms. If there is to be a rule book on opening and running the ideal 21st-century country-house hotel, the team at Lime Wood, not least its affable director, Justin Pinchbeck, are surely the people to write it.